Here the author must beg the reader's indulgence.
I've been a professional editor since 2007, after clawing my way up through the ranks as an assistant editor, logger and, the lowest of the low, film student. You name it, I've cut it—short and feature films, documentaries, television series, music videos, commercials.
Paradoxically enough, this makes it tough for me to judge editing. That's because I know damn well it doesn't exist in a void. It's an art form where the artist is dependent upon what people before him provided. Sidney Lumet said it best: "So many misconceptions exist about editing, particularly among critics. I've read that a certain picture was 'beautifully edited'. There's no way they could know how well or poorly it was edited… I don't know who did what in the editing." Furthermore, the editor's job isn't to make the editing look good—it's to make everything else look good.
And you can't rely on behind-the-scenes stories to figure out how that happened. When details emerge from the editing room, they usually fall into one of two categories: tales of what drove a director to leave an anticipated scene on the cutting room floor, or war stories of producers and executives hacking up a film in the interest of box office appeal. One rarely hears about how an editor puts a scene together in the first place, the process of choosing one take over another, in cutting to a close-up here rather than there. These things are hard to discuss, particularly in text. Film editing works in time, in rhythm. Even pictures don't help. You can look at a still from a movie and judge the lighting, the framing, the sets. You can't look at two stills and discuss the editing.
That's why the two best books on the craft have been psychological rather than technical. Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen's When the Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins is about the condition of editorhood, a tour through the mind of the anonymous craftsman at once playing sculptor and therapist. Even more significantly, Walter Murch's seminal In the Blink of an Eye addresses the core question of why editing works, what allows our unconscious inner minds to read a film.
It's an important question. For editing is the cornerstone of the cinematic medium, the one formal element it didn't borrow from pre-existing artistic vocabulary. Film took performance from the stage, temporality from recorded music, photography from (well) photography—but the cut is sui generis, a creation all its own. As Stanley Kubrick put it: "Everything else comes from something else… Editing is unique to film. You can see something from different points of view almost simultaneously, and it creates a new experience." Maybe the old cliché about pictures being made in the cutting room is true. Without the cutting room, they wouldn't be pictures.
For Ghostbusters, Ivan Reitman needed an editorial sensibility that would respect, perhaps even enhance, the timing of the jokes and the improvisational skill of the actors, but at the same time treat the material as that of a serious film, eschewing the trap of talking-heads comedy coverage.
Sheldon Kahn didn't start out in comedy. After some years editing television news, he landed his first feature credit on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, receiving an Academy Award nomination in the bargain. Another notable early gig was Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, starring and certainly influenced by John Cassavetes—a crash course in crafting a film out of unscripted moments. Looking back over his career with scholar Gabriella Oldham, he describes himself as primarily a "performance editor": "I don't consider myself necessarily the best 'action editor' in town. I focus on the actor and the performance."
By the time Ghostbusters rolled around, he had proven himself in the comedic milieu, cutting Private Benjamin and a Richard Pryor stand-up concert film. He'd also established fruitful collaborations with Robert Mulligan, the celebrated director of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Sydney Pollack, for whom he would edit Out of Africa as his first post-Ghostbusters gig. ("I know that if I only did one kind of film, I might get bored," he tells Oldham.) Ghostbusters would be his first picture for Ivan Reitman, but hardly his last; something clicked, and Kahn would be not only Reitman's go-to editor but an associate producer for years to come.
Collaborating with the well-rounded Kahn would be the more experienced David Blewitt, boasting twenty years in the business and an Oscar nomination for The Competition. Like Kahn, he'd started out in non-fiction television, cutting exploratory fare on the order of National Geographic and Time-Life specials and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, before graduating to higher-profile performance documentaries like Wattstax and That's Entertainment! Like Kahn, he was a relative newcomer to comedy, earning his most notable credits in the genre in the '80s on films like Marty Feldman's In God We Tru$t and Joel Schumacher's D.C. Cab. His was not a comedy editor's résumé, but Reitman wasn't looking for comedy editors—just as he'd done with his cinematographer, he selected his editors on the basis of what he felt they could do, not on what they once did.
Did years of experience in the documentary form help the editors ground Ghostbusters in reality? We can only surmise. There's a quiddity to editing that's hard to grasp. It's an invisible art, and the litmus test is this: when you watch a film, you should not feel the cuts, nor the hand of the editor. "Every editor is going to tell you the same thing," Kahn tells Below the Line. "If you don't notice the editing, that's good editing."
And every editor will, in fact, tell you the same thing. Perhaps Ralph Rosenblum's summation is the most sonorous: "Regardless of its extent or style, editing should not impress or call attention to itself. As an audience, we no more want to see the wheels and gears and levels responsible for the effect the film is having on us than we want to see the pencil marks on an author's first draft or the invisible wires in a magic show." A film is working if it's magically unspooling in front of you in smooth sequence, the cuts between shots no more conspicuous than the distance between any other two frames. As if it was all dreamed into life that way.
"Get Right Down There, Check It Out and Get Back to Me"
I'd like to do this chapter a little differently. Instead of merely plowing through the film chronologically, we'll find little clumps of teachable moments, and link them to a wider lesson on the power of editing.
After all, laying events down in chronological order is only the rudimentary, basic task of film editing. The real job is finding psychological order. Editing determines what we know when, what comes to our attention—and the characters'—at what point. Then it helps us interpret and understand that knowledge. An edited sequence sets up a series of questions and answers. It organizes the camera's discoveries, transforming them from phrases into poetry.
Let's take an early example from Ghostbusters. The film begins with mostly long takes, cutting only to change scenes or to shift screen geography. A minute and fifty seconds in, as the card catalog spews out its contents, we cut to Alice—not to shift the physical point of view, but the psychological. We've seen the card catalog going haywire. Now, the film is saying, it's her turn to see it. She turns—we cut to a reverse to emphasize the shift—and we experience the horror as she does, up close, disorienting. Every new shot of flying cards reinforces the fright factor. Then we cut back to Alice, to register her fear.
It's hard to judge an edited scene without knowing what went into it. Sometimes an imaginative exercise is necessary: How would it look if cut another way? The scene could have played out in a master. Or we could have seen the drawers in close-up before bringing Alice into the moment—asking us for our reaction before, not alongside, Alice. But instead, we see the situation first and ask if Alice will discover it, then cut to her and ask how she will react, and so on and so forth—questions and answers, until all are satisfied. "You've got to be very careful, I believe, as the storyteller not to let the audience get ahead of you," Kahn tells Oldham. "And sometimes giving them less information and letting them fill in as the story goes is better than giving them all the information immediately and then they're two steps ahead of you through the film."
"I Want You To Concentrate"
The question of what we know when isn't just applicable to straight storytelling. It can also enhance the mood of a scene. Ghostbusters frequently uses editing to bolster the comedy; let's see how.
The whole structure of a Zener test is based on the very question of who knows what when: the experimenter knows what's on the card, but the supposed clairvoyant doesn't. (Or does, as the case may be!) Venkman modifies the experiment to withhold information from his students. In the gap between his knowledge and theirs, comedic riches are found.
In the first scenario, we see the star card. The student guesses: "Square?" Then we cut to Venkman, revealing the star. Here, the film has created a bit of (admittedly unstirring) dramatic irony: we know the student's wrong before he does.
In the second scenario, the film only shows us the card back. We cut to Jennifer for her guess. Then to Venkman, as if to ask him if she got it right—and then, on his look, we cut to the reverse to see the circle. Here the edit has, briefly, shown us the game as Jennifer would record it, withholding our omniscient perspective—which contains the punch line—until the end. The screenplay, by contrast, gives the joke away too early; had we seen the circle card beforehand, it wouldn't have been nearly as funny to hear Venkman chirp "It is a star!" on the cut.
The third iteration plays much the same as the first—dramatic irony again—and the fourth organizes information in the same way; we know what Venkman is up to, there are no more surprises, so the editors don't bother to hide the sign of the cross. Instead, the editing creates a sense of intimacy between Venkman and Jennifer, cutting between the two, bringing her to a close-up.
The fifth and final card takes a little bit from both cases. We see the "wavy lines" card before the male student makes his guess, but only by a moment or so—the film effectively has it both ways on dramatic irony versus surprise. What is important at this point is not the structuring of information but the interaction of characters, and the editors cut between close-ups to underscore the male student's tension, Jennifer's amusement, and Venkman's… well, Venkman-ness.
"What Have You Seen?"
Editing dictates perspective. With every cut, a film says, here's what we're looking at now—here's who this moment is about and whose viewpoint we need to understand. We can see this as the film cuts to Venkman on "I need a little more time with this subject," bringing us from across the room to right in front of him. Or consider the consultation with Alice; the movie makes her look serious, afraid, but we cut to the men surrounding her so they can make light of things. Drama in close-up, comedy in wide shot, and never the twain shall meet.
Downstairs, in the stacks, the editing enforces a little pattern that guides us through our heroes' encounters. At first, the film shows us the warning signs before the characters trip across them—we see the stack of books in the foreground before we see them in the background, and the edit shows us the slime coating the card catalog before cutting to the reverse for their entrance and commentary. Then, as they draw closer to the ghost, to danger, things get too fast, and the film stops warning us: the bookcase falls by surprise, with no lingering before the characters' entrance to set it up, and we don't cut to the ghost until they've all assembled, and seen her. We used to be ahead of the game—now we're as lost as they are.
In the theatre, or even in a master shot—to say nothing of real life—the audience's eye is free to wander; we watch who we feel compelled to watch, generally the actor who's speaking. A film, by contrast, guides our eye, bids us check in with whomever the director wishes. The flow of attention is dictated not by life but by art. If acting is reacting, as the aphorism goes, then those reactions are doubly important in film—as is the time spent putting emphasis on what they're thinking.
Ghostbusters employs three such illustrative moments on the walk back to Weaver Hall. We cut back to Spengler, punching buttons on his calculator, as Venkman and Stantz discuss the day's results—he's glancing up at them, letting us know he's listening, formulating his own response. We cut to Venkman as Spengler finishes his prediction on catching a ghost, and hold on him a moment, watching the wheels turn in his mind. He's already coming up with a scheme.
Finally, at the end of the scene, we cut to Stantz, smiling as his friends exchange a Crunch bar. He's in on the joke, and cutting to him helps us feel the same way.
Sometimes it's when we cut, not what we cut to, that makes the moment; something happens to disturb the nature of the scene, and the editor makes us sit up and take notice. In the first firehouse scene, Stantz barges in on the conversation, and the film jerks us out of what we were doing to re-center on him. The rhythm of the edit feels a little odd when he pipes up over the real estate woman's pleased close-up, and for good reason—it's an interruption. Or, a little later, Dana's reaction to the Ghostbusters' television spot. "Ghostbusters!", they proclaim, in unison, and we cut to her expressive, quiescent face, taking in the television—it's as if the commercial has, in advertising jargon, spoken directly to the consumer.
Or watch the way Spengler perks up, just a bit, when Janine claims she might be "too intellectual". These are the moments an editor finds, and makes something of. The moment doesn't exist on the page, or in a master shot, or even in Spengler's shot alone; it comes from the juxtaposition of two separate moments, the combination. The old cliché has it that you write a movie three times: once when you write it, once when you shoot it, and once when you edit it. Moments like this show how an editor writes a movie.
For the craft of editing is not merely subtractive—forget the phrase 'the cutting room', never mind the iconographic if proverbial scissors. It's about building, connecting. Look at the scene of Dana in the firehouse lab: the cuts create a moment between Venkman and Dana, as the more scientifically-minded guys rattle on about the collective unconscious. Or later, as he stands over her, and we cut to an especially lovely insert of her sitting there, openmouthed.
Maybe on the surface the scene is about solving Dana's problem, but it's really about Venkman's deepening interest in her. Editing has the power to shift that emphasis, to show what can't be said aloud. It's an art form of the subconscious (the collective subconscious, if you will): we may not actually notice what the film is doing, but we feel it…
"You Didn't Used To Look Like This"
One of an editor's responsibilities is to vary the pace of the cuts. Some scenes call for rapid cutting, some for a more legato rhythm, but whatever the case, it's the contrasts between slow and fast moments that create interest, not the speed of the moments themselves—a relentlessly quick-moving film is as likely to bore as a lugubrious one.
Witness, then, how Ghostbusters slows down in between some stimulating moments. Dana's rejection of Venkman is paced slowly, with leisurely dolly shots covering several lines of dialogue. Then it quickens: a one-shot scene button in the hallway, a brief establishing shot of the firehouse. Then slow again: the Ghostbusters' doleful Chinese meal, all covered in one shot, and an unhurried push-in on Janine—and then the excitement begins. With the insert of her hand triggering the alarm comes the fast-paced "Cleanin' Up the Town", and the editors pick up the tempo in turn.
After this flurry of activity, three one-shot scenes (what filmmakers call 'oners') in a row: the long take in the hotel lobby, the conversation by the elevator and the hilariously glum conference in the elevator itself. Fans who grew up with the movie on home video had the chance to learn firsthand the value of these still moments. For the pan-and-scan VHS releases, the elevator scene was out of necessity divided into closer shots of the speakers. It threw off the timing, and proved the old adage: comedy happens in wide shot, drama happens in close-up.
These simpler scenes let us cool off, and make the subsequent rumpus more exhilarating by contrast. Everything in editing is relative; the pace of a scene only means something in relation to what came before.
The ballroom battle speeds the film up a bit, act like an action movie. When Stantz commands "Throw it!" and fires, there's a one-frame flash of light from his proton gun, and the film uses that moment to cut to the wide shot, also overexposed for a frame. A similar light burst takes us from the shot of the sparking chandelier to Stantz's face. Dynamic, effective transitions.
But sometimes it's preferable to lead our eye away from something, rather than toward it. When the chandelier falls, the film cuts to the lobby, and we hear the destruction rather than see it; it's funnier to imagine the moment of impact than it is to see it.
Back in the ballroom, the film mixes wide and close shots with aplomb. The shots-to-time ratio increases as the Ghostbusters destroy the room, and the editors often cut to the doomed decorations right as the hit flares up—the tiered punch bowl, the exploding cake, the collapsing long table, the sparking light fixture behind the bar.
With careful cutting, the filmmakers even managed to make the characters' destruction of the room worse, and therefore funnier. Venkman and Spengler toss a table away in a medium shot, and again we cut outside just at the moment of impact, to hear the crash. When we return to the ballroom in a wide shot, they're throwing another table—or are they? Check the fold in the falling tablecloth, the positions of the actors, Spengler's nervous jerk backwards. It's the same action in two different angles, just like Kovács said he shot, repeated for comedy's sake. And it works.
The trapping sequence requires the briskest cutting of any in the film so far, and the editors deliver. The film cuts on action, beginning and ending shots with something moving. Stantz shouts "Go!" and points to Spengler; on his point, the shot changes and Spengler fires. "It's working, Ray," says Spengler at the very start of his shot; Stantz says "Start bringing him down" to start his, and so on, cut and statement, cut and statement, not a frame wasted. Not until Slimer is trapped does the film afford us some breathing time, a second's lingering on a still shot of the trap before the red light begins to blink. At long last, things have calmed down.
"The Controversy Builds"
Of course a montage is always an editor's chance to shine, and no doubt the filmmakers had great fun assembling the "Ghostbusters" theme song sequence out of various parts. The wipes not only create visual interest, but harken back to an older style of filmmaking. All that's missing is one of the newspapers spinning into frame.
Here the film takes some editorial liberties. The shot of the bell and red light is a repeat from the first call. Janine's "Is it just a mist, or does it have arms and legs?" is lifted from an excised phone conversation during Zeddemore's introduction, the punchline from which would find its way into the sequel. Most glaringly, the dream ghost scene is taken from a much lengthier sequence involving a bust at Fort Detmerring. We'll explore its significance in the 'Gender' chapter; what's worth noting is not the scene itself but the fact that, with a little jiggering, an editor can make a scrap of something old into something new.
Perhaps the most significant editorial reshuffle comes right after Zeddemore joins the team. It's obvious from Venkman's slime-stained jumpsuit, and his cigarette in the firehouse, that the Lincoln Center scene has been moved here, before Peck's arrival. Aside from costing Venkman an extra subway token or two, the effect is twofold: to introduce Zeddemore earlier (reinforcing the Ghostbusters' success, which has not escaped Dana's attention), and to fill Venkman's sails with an extra puff of wind before confronting Peck. But first things first.
The Lincoln Center scene favors Dana, editorially—and why not, it's her domain. We start on her, seeing Venkman only when she sees him ("Dr. Venkman, this is a surprise" indeed)—and rather than cut, Reitman lets the meeting play out in longer takes, letting us see her thought process. We learn about Zuul and Gozer with her; we learn Venkman's intentions when she does (not that they're any surprise). Aside from his brief assessment of the violinist, the editors don't make the scene about Venkman until Dana has exited the conversation and returned to her friend.
One more editorial trick takes us out of the scene. The establishing shot of the firehouse was clearly taken from the front end of a similar shot from later in the film, when Peck arrives; indeed, we can even see the same two extras on the right side of the frame, waiting for their cue. Based on their inactivity, this little scrap of footage was probably gleaned from those oft-vital moments between the commands of 'roll camera' and 'action'. In any event, context is everything.
"Something Big on the Horizon"
Editing tells us who the scene is about. Just as Dana had the focus in her scene with Venkman, Peck gets the focus in his; he's on the search for information, but Venkman is only giving him short, stubby answers, and the editing reflects that. We only see more of Venkman as he's forced to give up more, as Peck flushes him out. "Why do you want to see the storage facility?" is the turning point—it's the first time Venkman willingly steps into the conversation, and it's the first shot where Venkman's reaction is seen while Peck is speaking. He's involved now. By the end of the scene, he'll have gotten in too deep.
After the Twinkie scene, we take a moment with Dana. Some of the longest takes of the movie are here: a forty-five-second shot in the hallway, a nearly-thirty-second shot of her phone call. The literal thunderstorm outside notwithstanding, this pace represents the calm before the storm. Naturally, the cutting quickens when the terror dog arises.
Then it's lather, rinse, repeat. A lingering oner of the broken statues on the roof, and then the longest single shot in the film, over a full minute at Louis's party. Just as the camerawork parodied the attack on Dana, the editing—or lack thereof—does too. Even when Louis escapes, the editing doesn't ramp up to action-movie speed: it's funnier to see him flail. It's an effective reinforcement of the lesson that editing is all about context. What evokes foreboding in one scenario can create laughter in the next.
The movie doesn't really speed up again until the firehouse basement, when Peck threatens to shut off the protection grid. This plays as two scenes separated by Venkman's arrival, and the editing illustrates Venkman's effect on the tenor of the meeting.
The Peck-Spengler confrontation plays out as a simple master, a oner. Then Venkman, the combustible element, steps in, and the pace accelerates, reaching a cut per line. Once it's clear that Peck is getting his way, the editing pace slows down again—dread. This whole section of the film is paced for dread over action: counter-intuitively, an explosion scene and a montage follow and both of them move slowly.
"One of the stylistic ways I like to work," Kahn tells Oldham, "is finishing one scene in a longer shot, then cutting to a close-up of a person who wasn't necessarily in the scene you just saw. That person will start talking, then I will cut to a longer shot so the audience knows where he is. The audience is surprised by the change and they're taken with it."
This exact technique leads us to the prison scene, a worthwhile place to discuss storytelling—because that's what the scene is about. It's about Stantz sharing information and Spengler drawing the conclusions, and Spengler sharing exposition concerning the Ivo Shandor Building.
It begins with a close-up of Zeddemore protesting, "Hey, guard! Look, I wanna make a phone call!" as the prison gate is shut. A cut to a wide shot confirms that, yes, he's in the city lock-up, and we pan right as Spengler murmurs about metallurgy, revealing the rest of the guys in there with him. Question asked, question answered. The pan draws us into the story, and then we cut to the two shot of Venkman and his new cellmate to (literally) ask, "Everybody getting this so far?"
This scene starts slowly; dialogues play out in masters and two shots at first. When Spengler takes control of the scene, he gets his own close-up; Zeddemore wrests control away with his interruption, and then the jail guard gets the spotlight as he steps in to end the scene. These edits are the cinematic equivalent of Spengler's dramatic pause in the middle of his Ivo Shandor monologue, to draw the audience in.
"What Sign Are You Waiting For?"
Time is the editor's medium, his paint, his clay. In City Hall, Ghostbusters demonstrates how an editor can manipulate time within a conversation, adding notes and rests as would a composer. In the visual arts, sometimes it's the negative space that makes a composition work. Cinema can be the same way.
When Peck and the Ghostbusters face off, the first exchanges are quick: Peck accuses, Stantz counter-accuses, and Peck snaps back without a frame of rest in between. Then the film gives the close-up of the Mayor a little time. His eyes shift to the Ghostbusters. He's weighing what he's heard. Venkman takes a pause, too, before solemnly informing the Mayor, "This man has no dick." These pauses not only vary the pace of the conversation, adding interest, but act as a grave drumroll anticipating Venkman's joke.
The edit gives us a reaction shot of Zeddemore, just to fill a little space before Peck's outburst—it's a pause for laughter. Who knows where the stray footage, less than a second, of Zeddemore came from? Who was Ernie Hudson looking at in that moment, and why? Was it actually quiet when he did it or has a busy audio track been replaced with room tone? The magic of editing is that none of these questions matter—if it works in context, it works.
And yet just such a cutaway in this scene also represents one of, in this critic's (and editor's) opinion, the film's few formal missteps. It's an odd close-up of Spengler during the archbishop's statement. It feels unmotivated, as if the only reason it's there is to cover a problematic edit between two angles of the archbishop and the Mayor. Why the little flicker of Spengler's expression changing? Why go to him of all people during this discussion? It's a nitpick, but an instructive one. Pointing out the comparatively small and petty mishaps of a great film only serves to remind you of all the decisions it got right.
In any event, the film's priority here is not who or what to show but how quickly to show it, for, as always in this scene, the tempo is changing. The pace is brisk as the fire commissioner, police commissioner and archbishop chime in—one, two, three new parties heard from, all here to refute Peck. Then slower, again, for the archbishop's counsel to the Mayor—this is a sobering moment. Then quick again, as the Ghostbusters explain the seriousness of the matter at hand, one comment after another, cutting back to the Mayor as the consequences dawn on him. As always, the more varied the pace, the more exciting the scene. When the Mayor shouts "Enough! I get the point," it puts the brakes on the exchange, and the film pauses to let it all sink in. A silent reaction from Peck, and some quiet space afforded the Mayor before he speaks again.
The scene doesn't speed up again. It doesn't need to. What's important now is to see the characters think. Venkman offers the Mayor an interesting new perspective on the solution. Several seconds pass. Peck protests. Several more seconds pass. It's in these pauses, the spaces between the words, that we find the meaning of the moment. The film knows that.
Ghostbusters finds a new way to deal with time in the "Savin' the Day" sequence. An ordinary dialogue scene is edited according to the scene's internal clock, showing us what happens as it happens. In a montage, such as the "Ghostbusters" theme sequence, elements spanning time and even space are brought together in compressed glimpses. But here, we move instead among aspects—documenting not a moment but moments. We survey one side of Central Park West, then the other; we document Ecto-1's arrival from multiple angles, before rejoining the protagonists. These are not narrative cuts, strictly speaking, but presentational—establishing a place, setting a mood.
There is little precedent for this in the film; ten, twenty seconds at a stretch without moving the plot forward, without even any actor with a speaking role. The movie might as well have set in for some lingering footage of the New York skyline or light playing on the water. In keeping with the brief abandonment of narrative perspective for these moments (as discussed in the 'Shot by Shot' chapter), the editing takes up a new style. Time stands still, waiting for our heroes to intervene. And we are there, feeling the doom.
"These Guys Wanna Play Rough"
After all the excitement of the earthquake, the film restrains its pace for a bit. The staircase scene plays out in a dour little oner, twenty-five seconds long, and then we linger on the reveal of Dana and Louis for eighteen seconds more. There's a surprising number of long takes for a storming-the-castle sequence, actually—a oner as the Ghostbusters arrive on Dana's floor, a comically static shot at the final stairs to the temple ("They go up"). It lends a stately quality to a part of the film normally concerned with building up to action. The temple doors lumber open slowly. Our heroes sort of stagger in, bewildered, without fanfare or velocity.
But, then, a slowdown is appropriate; the ensuing battle with Gozer is hardly titanic, and indeed the action-movie tactics our heroes employ (shoot enemy; as backup plan, shoot more forcefully) prove risibly useless. Fighting is moot. It's a clash of personalities. And so we hear Stantz's words, his wonder—"It's a girl"—before we get a decent look at Gozer for ourselves. His confusion, more than anything, sets the tone for what's to come.
A similar thing happens when we get Gozer's first closeup; it, too, is announced first, telegraphed, as Stantz the duly designated representative calls out to her, "Gozer the Gozerian!", and only then do we get the full effect, the blood-red eyes, the icy skin. The film is telling us what it's going to tell us; it's leading us, like the purple lightning that reaches us to receive Gozer's feet on her backflip. It's cluing us in to expect something.
It's not the reveal that counts, it's the leadup. As Kahn recounts to Oldham, the filmmakers used a similar tactic to introduce the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man: "I remember Ivan and I discussing how to enhance the enjoyment of the audience by adding as much tension in the development of this character before we see it. Through Aykroyd's eyes, we see something going past two buildings. It's the head of the Man—we're not sure what it is, but we know it's going to be unbelievably great. We could have just had it turn the corner and come straight toward us and you would have seen the whole thing, but we didn't want to do that. We heightened the audience curiosity."
And the payoff, in a word, works. This is the moment that the entire film has been building up to, and like any other joke, timing is everything. The filmmakers delay the Marshmallow Man's reveal as long as possible, with a ludicrously dilatory pre-show confession from Stantz and a lengthy snippet of music stringing us along in the shot seen "[t]hrough Aykroyd's eyes"; Venkman, ever the audience surrogate, turns to Stantz for an explanation, and Stantz finally spits it out.
The fire erupting from the burning Man makes a natural wipe to the final phase of the battle; maybe it's an editor's romanticization, seeing patterns that aren't there, but the last frame of the fire makes a decent graphic match with the first frame of Stantz's silhouette scrambling for cover.
The first snatch of the regrouping takes place in a oner; then we cut away to Stay-Puft, making his ascent, then back to the same shot before punching in for close-ups. This conversation could have played out as one continuous scene, but intercutting with the monster at the right moment adds a little pressure. The enemy is at the gates. And from here, the game becomes simple: draw out the tension. Build the moment. With brief glimpses. Stretching time out.
Just a bit. Here and there.
Get down to the wire.
Until the last.
The explosion capping off the climax is the great release, and permits the film to slow down a bit, and take stock. Lingering wide shots of Central Park West, and aspect-to-aspect cuts showing the devastation on the rooftop. The four Ghostbusters reunite in a shot lasting nearly thirty seconds, a luxurious stretch that the action scene could never have afforded.
As with the Marshmallow Man, editing is used to delay the reveal of Dana until the right moment. Little teases of her fingers and longer-than-necessary reactions from the guys give way to deliberately protracted moments removing the terror dog shell; careful eyes can spot when the edit repeats an action to draw out the moment, and it can't be that hard for four men to get the shell off if Louis is able to wriggle out of most of it himself. (Louis's piteous wail, of course, interrupts at exactly the most tender moment.)
Both the plot climax and the emotional climax have been fulfilled, and the best the edit can do is quit while it's ahead; it's a race to the finish line now, and as the deleted scenes show, such crucial plot threads as Keymaster-Gatekeeper copulation and the fate of Mr. Stay-Puft's hat must forever go unaddressed. Unusually, the male and female leads usher themselves out quietly while supporting characters have the last word—anything to speed the process up. "As we edited the film," Reitman remembers, "we just kept making that transition from that moment through to their leaving the building shorter and shorter. There was more dialogue on top—especially between Dana and Louis—and we had another sequence in front of the building where there was dialogue. Ultimately, I just cut all that stuff out. It was over. The movie was over. And the sooner we got to the credits, the better."
"The essence of cinema is editing," Francis Ford Coppola once said. "It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images, images of people during emotional moments, or just images in a general sense, but put together in a kind of alchemy. A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually."
Well, of course the cornerstone of cinema is alchemy. So's the whole thing. Coppola's path to "above and beyond" describes Ivan Reitman's pairing of Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, sharing a sharper script than either might have created on their own; it also describes the wonderful improvisations of the Ghostbusters cast, legendary for its chemistry, bringing the best out in each other on set every day. The success of Ghostbusters is in its combination of elements, its ability to bring energies together to create comic gold, a bundle of disparate streams crossing.
Sheldon Kahn sums it all up for Oldham: "It's always a challenge the first time to look at that material and figure out where do I put the close-ups, where do I put the long shots, and so on. All of a sudden your hand moves, your mind starts to click, and magic happens for me."
Ghostbusters is one of those special movies where magic happens all the time.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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